The voice on the car radio droned on as we left Rapid City, and headed through the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux Indians. We had just flown in from Seattle, where we had been on location with the Indians of the North West coast for a wintry fortnight, in which treacherous icy roads had been our greatest hazard. But here in South Dakota it was the intense cold that we had to combat.

We were well prepared. Each car carried a survival heater, “A must”, said the locals, stressing the point with tales of motorists stranded on the prairies and frozen to death. We also had insulated underwear, gloves and socks.

Two hundred miles south of Rapid City we crossed the border of the Reservation. It was not typified by the tepees and feathered Indians depicted in Hollywood films. Pine Ridge is a shanty town of shacks, unpaved roads, garbage dumps, wrecked cars and the occasional dead, frozen dog. Inside a typical log shack one finds the walls crudely lined with newspaper or cardboard in an attempt to stop freezing winds whistling through the gaps between the logs. It is an exceptional home that has electricity to provide heat and light.

The inactivity of the town is striking. Most of the Indians are unemployed. They stroll around the reservation aimlessly, with blank expressions on their faces, or lounge in the corridors of the local government office, where they draw their welfare cheques. One thing they have in common with the whites is the American addiction to jeans, T-shirts and chewing gum. The buckskins, beads and feathers have long since been stored away in family treasure chests to be brought out as a tourist attraction in the summer.

The Indians have given up hope of getting a fair deal from the white man and it was hardly suprising that at first we were treated with great caution and suspicion. Each member of the unit had his share of public relations work to do.

It was not unusual to arrive at an Indian home ready for a day’s filming to find a note on the door: “Had to go to visit my mother today”, or to drive fifty miles to film a Pow Wow only to find the hall in darkness and to be told by a lone Indian to “try Monday, maybe we have Pow Wow then.”

We experienced a kickback of the commercially exploited Sioux on our second Reservation – the Rosebud. Henry Crowdog, a revered elder of the tribe eventually agreed to arrange a Ghost dance for us to film. After much haggling over price, a date was set. In their own time the dancers arrived announcing a “rehearsal day” for which they required “rehearsal fees”. Marshalling their forces took most of the day and the rehearsal lasted half-an-hour.

We presented ourselves hopefully early on the second day. The Indians arrived an hour later and spent two gleeful hours making each other up in the lurid colours of the Ghost Dance. After 20 minutes filming they announced a lunch break. Hadn’t they danced long enough? After all it was a 2 minute film sequence and they’d danced for more than 2 minutes! Ross assumed the title “Big Thundercloud” when he discovered that during, lunch they had washed off their make-up and couldn’t remember who had worn w hat colours…!

During this location we lived off the reservation, just over the border in Rushville, Nebraska – the heart of the Bible Belt of the Mid-West. The town is populated with the sleek, well-fed citizens of the American Dream who looked up from their malted milks only long enough to wrinkle their Conservative noses at the mention of the “tragic” Indians 20 miles away. They preferred not to discuss the problem. “We give them social security don’t we – and all they do is get drunk on it!” However, having revised their original opinion that we were hippies from California, the people of Rushville welcomed us with open arms. Some of them assumed that we constituted the whole of THAMES’ staff and were a local station. We explained that THAMES Television broadcast “coast-to-coast” in Britain and has a cast of hundreds… This, together with coming from London, England, put us in the celebrity bracket and they rallied round to give us any help we needed.

Our VIP status was somewhat shattered, however, by one of the Indians, who, at the end of the trip said: “Where is England anyway?”

About the author

June Roberts was the editor of the Thames Television house newspaper, Talk of THAMES

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